August 28, 2008
The Aleppian Jewish community of Syria may have scattered to other countries around the world, but Poopa Dweck is determined to keep its descendants connected — through food.
Dweck, a longtime resident of Deal, recently published Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews (Ecco/Harper Collins). The lavishly illustrated coffee-table volume contains 180 recipes for all manner of dishes — appetizers, soups, main courses, sides, desserts — but the gustatory element is just one component of the author’s higher purpose.
“I really get deep into the history,” said Dweck in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News. “I felt it was important because the next generations were losing the understanding of where we came from and where our religious practices came from and why we adhere to everything so strongly.”
In that spirit, Dweck includes holiday and Aleppian “life-cycle” recipes. For example, “When a baby receives its first tooth, we prepare a dish called sliha, which is prepared with wheat berries, nuts, and pomegranate. When a bride gets married we make a dish called ka’ak bi’oz,” almond cookie wreaths (almonds are a symbol of fertility).
The third part of her book takes a non-culinary look at those life-cycle events. Aromas has the feel of a family album, illustrated with photos of the Aleppian community, including some of Dweck’s family, past and present.
“I wanted the photography to be absolutely gorgeous,” she said, acknowledging that using the work of food photographer Quentin Bacon for a kosher cookbook might strike some readers as ironic. “I wanted the book to really be tantalizing….”
One of the discerning ingredients of Syrian cooking is tamarind concentrate — a Persian influence — which imbues a tangy/sour flavor, redolent of apricots and dates and used as the base for many dishes.
Another staple is mehshi, which Dweck described as any stuffed vegetable dish, such as eggplant, zucchini, grape leaves, or onions. Aleppian cuisine is also known for its “liberal use of spices, but in a very sophisticated way — not where you choke on it.”
The recipes are easy to follow, Dweck said: “I made that my mission. I wanted [readers] to not feel intimidated.”
So far, she’s been thrilled by the feedback from satisfied readers, saying her biggest support comes from a surprising demographic. “The older generations of the community: the grandmothers, the great-grandmothers, the older men, the rabbis. They’re so thankful for this book because we have something to say, ‘This is who we are.’
“Food is a great vehicle because it keeps us connected and it does help us perpetuate our religious practices because any holiday — whether it’s Shabbat or Passover or a life cycle event — there’s always food involved, so women have played a tremendous part in keeping this phenomenon.”
Despite their geographic separation — scattered to such locations as Panama, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Great Britain, and France, as well as the United States — the Jews of Aleppo, said Dweck, maintain close ties and still prepare the foods and adhere to the religious practices of Aleppo.
Dweck said she felt an “emergency” to publish her book. “I wanted my grandchildren and, God willing, my great-grandchildren to really understand and perpetuate all our customs and our recipes, and I knew it had to be put in an enticing format.
“It’s really much more than a cookbook. The recipes are a vehicle to get everybody to the deep stuff.” Plans are in the works to translate the book into Hebrew, Spanish, and Turkish.
Dweck said she loves to spread the joy of cooking through lectures, classes, and demonstrations around the world. One such trip last November took her to several regions in China, where she cooked for the Chabad House in Shanghai.
“They brought me there to teach the Chinese cooks how to prepare Syrian food, so I spent a week with over a dozen assistants,” teaching them to make numerous dishes. “By the end of the week, we had a Shabbat dinner for over 200 guests, which is typical for them.”
Working with food is not Dweck’s only interest. She is currently working on a documentary about the women of Aleppo. She is also involved with the Jesse Dweck Learning Center, Manhattan, which she created in memory of her son who died at the age of 18. “I felt I had to put my grief somewhere, so I started the center, which is very reflective of who he was.
“When he went to college…and his formal yeshiva education finished, I said to him, you really have to continue. Just go to one Torah class a week and I’ll be happy. And that’s what he did.”
Dweck established the center to be “approachable to the young college students that were in the same position that he was…. Because that’s what’s happening. Just as we came from Aleppo to Brooklyn, another community is developing in Manhattan, so I wanted to make sure they stayed connected.”
Her own connection with the borough runs deep: her children and grandchildren all reside there and she said she hopes to move there in the near future.
For more information on Dweck’s work, visit Aromasofaleppo.com
Recipes from Aromas of Aleppo
(RICE WITH BROWN LENTILS AND FRIZZLED CARMELIZED ONIONS)
3/4 cup brown lentils
2 cups thinly sliced onions (3-4 onions)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 cup long-grain white rice
1 tsp. kosher salt
3 Tbsp. butter
Combine lentils with one cup water in a large saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, 10-15 minutes or until lentils are slightly firm.
In a large skillet, saute onions in vegetable oil over medium heat for 30 minutes, or until thoroughly caramelized.
When lentils are done al dente, drain liquid into a measuring cup and add enough water to bring total to one and one-half cups. Return to saucepan and add rice, salt, and a third of the onions. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add butter to rice and continue simmering for 10 minutes. Before serving, top the mujedrah with the remaining fried onions and their cooking oil.
Yield: six to eight servings
4 cups sugar
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 1/4 cups cornstarch
1 tsp. cream of tartar
1 Tbsp. rose water
1 cup pistachios, shelled and chopped
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
To make the syrup, combine sugar, one and one-half cups water, and lemon juice in a sturdy medium saucepan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves, making sure to brush sugar crystals off the side of the pan using a bristle brush dipped in cold water.
Bring mixture to a boil. Boil six-eight minutes to the soft-ball stage (240 degrees on a candy thermometer). Remove from heat.
In another sturdy saucepan, blend one cup cornstarch, cream of tartar, and one cup cold water until smooth; add another two cups water. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until thick and bubbling. Whisk to remove lumps.
Pour hot syrup gradually into mixture, stirring constantly. Bring to boil and simmer for one and one-quarter hours, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon. Cook until mixture reaches a pale golden color.
Stir in rose water, add pistachios, and remove from heat.
Pour mixture into an oiled nine-inch-square cake pan. Allow to set, uncovered, for 12 hours at room temperature.
Combine confectioners’ sugar and remaining one-quarter cup cornstarch in a flat dish.
Cut raha into one-and-one-half-inch squares with an oiled knife and toss into the sugar mixture. Layer the raha in a sealed container with remaining sugar mixture sprinkled between the layers.
Yield: Two pounds, or about three dozen pieces.
Adapted from Aromas of Aleppo: The Legendary Cuisine of Syrian Jews (Ecco/Harper Collins).